From the Winter 2014/2015 Issue “Europe Under Fire“
By Patrice de Beer
TERRATS VILLAGE, France—This piece was written in the south of France in the small house I own one hour by express train from Barcelona, the very week the European Union’s new leadership was installed for five years in Brussels, and amid the surge of the Catalans’ campaign for self-determination in Spain. This might be seen as the next step in the process of an EU that’s unwinding, as divisions are no longer between member states, but also within some of them—Spain for the Catalans, United Kingdom for the Scots.
It’s more likely, however, that both Catalans and Scots are showing that they would feel more at ease as new minor micro-members of the Union than as small morsels of their current states. They view Brussels as more benign than either London or Madrid, and as a guarantor rather than a threat. Just as the EU has been helping East European states liberated from Moscow strengthen their democracies, develop their economies, and protect their newly acquired freedom, Putin’s Russia is flexing its muscles against its neighbors, beginning in Ukraine.
Considered the most powerful and inventive idea of the 20th century, today the EU appears more to its members, and citizens alike, as limping towards an uncertain future. No longer a leading force toward progress and prosperity, it has morphed into a rudderless, bureaucratic machine obsessed with inadequate regulations, punishing unimaginative financial and fiscal policies less and less in tune with its citizens’ daily lives and aspirations. And what makes it even worse is that the countries and governments who have benefited from it and who control it by nominating their own commissioners to leadership posts are the very same who, when back home, put the blame on the Commission they have crafted to implement their policies. They attempt to wash their hands of their own responsibilities by making voters believe this Brussels bogeyman is the only culprit for everything that does not work. This lack of courage has been nurturing an ever-growing anti-European feeling now widespread throughout the EU.
CHAIRMAN AS BOGEYMAN
The worst example of this lack of ambition was the last chairman of the Commission, former Portuguese prime minister and one of the few allies of George W. Bush’s disastrous war in Iraq, José Manuel Barroso. European leaders had wanted a man lacking any personality, energy, courage, and vision, unable to stand against them. And that’s just what they got—almost precisely like his Luxembourgeois predecessor, Jacques Santer. To have picked such a man at a time the EU was being given more supranational powers, in economics as well as foreign policy, shows how low EU priorities have ranked for European capitals. For instance, France has had 10 ministers for European Affairs in the last 10 years, a recipe for stagnation if not failure.
The new chair, Luxembourg’s ex-premier Jean-Claude Juncker, has shown more personality and wider ambitions. But will he succeed, or perhaps even more importantly, will he be given the leeway to act? Will the man who, just before the crisis started, told The Economist, “We all know what to do, but we don’t know how to get re-elected once we have done it,” be able to deliver? Moreover, it seems likely that his tenure will be marred by the scandal of secret tax agreements between Luxembourg and over 1,000 top world corporations like IKEA, Amazon, and JPMorgan. Or, perhaps, he will be able to use this crisis as a springboard to move forward.
Add to this dismal tally the low caliber of European leaders at the national level and in Brussels. Sadly, the days of leading Commission figures like France’s Jacques Delors or visionaries like French President François Mitterrand, German Chancellor Helmut Kohl, or U.K. Premier Margaret Thatcher are long gone. So it’s not difficult to understand why the EU has squandered its reputation, at home and internationally, and can do no better than limp through the present crisis thanks to short-term and unimaginative lack of strategy. Yet such complaints aside, we are hardly the only ones to suffer when we look to the democracies around us or at the authoritarian threats to freedom and human rights in countries like China, Russia, and India.
All over the world, people—at least those with the right to cast their votes freely—have lost hope in their politicians, from Barack Obama to France’s François Hollande or Brazil’s newly re-elected president Dilma Rousseff. They’ve lost faith in their futures, and rightly so. Promises botched, “the vision thing” artfully crafted by their image specialists in cramped cubicles and editing bays, isolated from normal people they hardly know. For most politicians, long-term vision extends at best to the next elections. The rich still keep getting richer, the poor poorer, jobs outsourced by whatever government—left, right, or center. Few of these products are really appealing. Few seem to be making any effort to find a path out of the crisis gripping our continent. Instead, we get more of the same as voters refuse to tighten their belts for leaders who can’t lead and who they don’t trust. What is left is navel gazing, comparing our hopeless fate with that of the others, and building fences against a threatening world surrounding us. And we, the French, are so good at that, we who consider ourselves the most unhappy, unfortunate people in the world, led by the worst politicians ever in the worst crisis ever, worse even than Afghans or Iraqis. At the same time, we cling to the smallest bits of privilege we manage to retain.
The risk is that we throw the baby out with the bath water—the EU becoming an international basket case, an economic and political dwarf, an imperiled masterpiece of yesteryears’ human genius. If it cannot be saved, it will inevitably fall into oblivion. In these days of short-termism and lack of memory, in this fast-moving and decaffeinated society where events are instantaneously replaced by others, without a single attempt to set priorities, major events are treated no better nor worse than a car accident or a politician’s wife or mistress’s liposuction. So the tendency could be to declare the demise, the end of a flailing and divided Europe, as the end of history.
Being an optimist—for this moment at least and despite all odds, and I might also change my mind tomorrow—I would rather look at Europe as a lame duck with a shot at redemption. Europe was a great idea, and still is. Born from the second war of the 20th century, World War II, it has already demonstrated its ability to overcome several crises. That is a part of its DNA.
But the EU’s future lies in its own multiple and sometimes opposing hands—their ability to work together toward achievable aims at just the time citizens’ weariness toward Europe threatens to metastasize into political parties riding the tiger of xenophobia, populism, and authoritarianism. Under the banners of a succession of know-it-all leaders, the National Front in France, United Kingdom’s Independence Party, Silvio Berlusconi and the Five Star Movement in Italy, the newly-born Podemos in Spain, as well as a galaxy of smaller parties, for the first time since World War II many now stand a chance of achieving or sharing power.
In a society, whether of men or of nations, banding together has always been a protracted endeavor, never to be taken for granted. And, for Europe, it is now a matter of survival. Survival for the euro has until now meant outliving many prophets of doom but failing to unite the EU, and has proven itself unable to draw the continent’s collective economy out of recession or stagnation. Yet for the European institution, bent on survival, it has so far proven unable to make the hard choice between a customs union in the British style and the aspiration of most continental members for a common economic government. But it’s hard to envision the type of government that could impose its views on countries that insist on retaining control of their own sovereignty and on voters who still want to cling, and rightly so, to their own traditions and history—starting with the major ones like France, Germany, and the U.K.
All this must come, of course, without caving into a soft consensus, which too often means doing nothing and relying on an ever-fading American umbrella and only taking decisions which do not displease anyone. At once, leaders must find a way to counter Putin’s ambitions without squandering German or French trade interests and while protecting countries, like Poland, frightened by a historically threatening Russia. Countries like the U.K. or France, which still retain international responsibilities and nuclear weapons, become involved in fighting terrorism in Africa or the Middle East. They, along with the U.S., are paying with their defense budgest and the blood of their soldiers for the Swiss-like pacifity of other European states.
In a globalized world, or a continent that aspires to achieve unity, whether we like it or not, the crisis of one has become the crisis of all.
Patrice de Beer, successively Washington, then London correspondent and senior editor of the French daily Le Monde, writes for OpenDemocracy.net and, frequently, for World Policy Journal.
[Photo courtesy of Bulent Yusuf]